Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Indigenous people got little more than platitudes from the leaders of the five major parties in last night’s one and only English-language federal election debate, and that’s why Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald tried to push organizers for an Indigenous-issues only debate.
“That would be the space where we could really get a sense of what these leaders are prepared to do, what commitments they can make,” she said. It’s a place where Archibald could hear where leaders and the parties stand on inherent and treaty rights.
Archibald watched the debate after coming off the water in Nova Scotia where she boarded a Mi’kmaw fishing boat as the treaty-rights bearing fishers were surrounded by department of Fisheries and Oceans officials. Their lobster traps were seized by DFO.
“There’s a real underlying issue (of) … inherent and treaty rights being ignored. First Nations sovereignty and jurisdiction are not being addressed adequately in my view, and I would have liked to have heard the leadership of the parties on how they would begin to create the mechanisms so that we can really have true peace here on Turtle Island because these conflicts … are really about lands and waters and resources,” she said.
Dismantling the Indian Act and ensuring that Canada lives up to its constitutional obligations to Indigenous peoples were among the topics pursued by APTN journalist Melissa Ridgen, who led the Reconciliation section of the debate.
However, the answers to her questions provided few details beyond parties hoping to build partnerships and their stated need to listen to Indigenous leaders.
Liberal leader and incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was committed to dismantling the Indian Act and how that happened would vary from community to community depending on which jurisdictions each wanted to first tackle.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said the solution would have to be “Indigenous led.”
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said he would work with Indigenous leaders from non-profits, the private sector, industry and academia, while Green Party leader Annamie Paul said Indigenous MPs would provide direction.
Archibald points out that none of the answers—whether on this question or others—included getting direction from the AFN, the Métis National Council or the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which reflects an “ongoing colonial approach, an ongoing patriarchal and paternalistic approach” to solving issues.
“I did notice that generally the parties feel they’re consulting with somebody. I don’t know who it is. I certainly was not asked as a national chief to have input into party platforms, where I stood on particular issues (and) that’s a problem because the issues that we’re facing, the longstanding ongoing problems and challenges, the solutions to those issues are actually in First Nations,” said Archibald.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet faced a question about systemic racism in Quebec, with specific reference to Atikamekw woman Joyce Echaquan who recorded and posted the racist treatment she received in a hospital just prior to her death. It was the second question of the night that Blanchet had received about discrimination in his home province. He refused to answer.
Archibald said she recently did a tour of communities in western and southwestern Quebec with AFN Regional Chief Ghislain Picard.
“It’s very clear to me that there is not only systemic racism in Quebec, there’s outright racism and that racism is impacting the rights of First Nations people in that province,” she said.
Archibald said the Quebec government had made little progress in resolving land issues on unsurrendered and unceded territories of the Algonquin people, which infringes upon their rights and access to resources.
“To me that really speaks to a province, a provincial government, that isn’t doing enough to begin to solve the problems of their province as it relates to First Nations right holders,” she said.
All the leaders made it clear that reconciliation was a priority, but few were specific on the issues raised through the questions asked by both Ridgen and debate moderator Shachi Kurl, which included building respectful nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples; addressing the disproportionate violence faced by Indigenous women and girls; addressing poverty and trauma in order to keep children out of the child welfare system; and ensuring money spent to address Indigenous concerns gets results.
The section on reconciliation, which was one of five debate topics for the evening, was kicked off by 18-year-old Ojibway man, Marek McLeod of Sault Ste. Marie, who asked how the leaders would build trust with Indigenous peoples after 150 years of failure.
“Relationship,” “partnership,” “engagement” and “action” were the buzzwords for the answers, but nothing specific was offered to follow those words.
Paul, the only woman on the debate floor, made it clear “political will” was needed to tackle violence against Indigenous women and girls and to ensure that poverty and trauma were addressed in order to keep children out of the child welfare system.
“The Indigenous leadership is there; it is ready to guide all of these processes. We have all of the recommendations we need. What we're missing is political will,” she said.
As for the other topics of the night—Affordability, Climate, COVID-19 recovery, and Leadership and Accountability—Archibald says these all pertain to First Nations people as well, although the solutions differ.
“That’s where we’ve got to start charting the path forward with all of these parties, is helping them to understand that First Nations people want the same thing that regular Canadians want. We want our children to be healthy and happy, surrounded by the love and care of their families in safe and vibrant communities. We all want that. The solutions of how to get there are actually in our communities,” she said.
While the choppy format of the debate did not allow for prolonged discussion among the leaders, Archibald said she was impressed with the work done by Ridgen, who offered up strong, detailed questions. Ridgen is the first Indigenous journalist to ever be included in a federal leadership debate.
“I hope by APTN being here, asking the questions that we asked, regardless of what the answers were, I think that the questions should be enough to get people thinking and I hope to see that people get educated,” said Ridgen, speaking after the debate in a special follow-up broadcast by APTN.
Prior to the debate, Archibald released the AFN’s The Healing Path Forward: 2021 Federal Election Priorities for First Nations and Canada, which outlined five priorities: truth, reconciliation and healing for First Nations and all Canadians; climate and conservation leadership with First Nations; economic growth, prosperity, and wealth building for First Nations; promoting peace by respecting First Nations jurisdiction; and rebuilding and strengthening First Nations.
She said she had received no formal response from any of the leaders, although Trudeau had phoned and told her they were “analyzing and looking at” the document.
“What I did let him know is that we want to make sure that even though party platforms have come out, that they are hopefully living documents where they can begin to adjust them based upon input they’re hearing directly from First Nations,” she said.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.